The Garo Hills - Part 1 / by David Johnstone

Tura to Balpakram National Park, South Garo

Wednesday 21st, Thursday 22nd March 2018

THE WAITING GAME

After a shit night’s sleep under my useless one-man mosquito net - I wasn’t taking chances after a good few bites in Cherrapunjee - I popped my head into the ‘Tourism Office’ literally next door to my hotel, The Polo Orchid (the best in town apparently), on the outskirts of Tura.

My death shroud mosquito net

My death shroud mosquito net

Nice people. Absolutely hopeless. In these less travelled places where only a handful of intrepid travellers might venture in a single year there is zero information and no one has grasped the concept of perhaps promoting their region just that tiny little bit. So I left more or less empty handed bar a small folded leaflet. There was little in the way of information online either and my Lonely Planet has a miserly five pages on the entire state of Meghalaya. Unperturbed, I managed to wring out a number for a guide and intended visiting the Forest Department for a permit to travel. I’ll come to the reason why later. 

Another long, fascinating road trip awaited

Another long, fascinating road trip awaited

I was fortunate enough to get through to a local guide, Dipu Marak, and he later visited the guesthouse to run through an itinerary of sorts. It would require the hiring of a jeep, long journeys on poor roads through remote countryside and bringing in our own supplies. And expensive with it. Still, my intention was to visit the national parks and I wasn’t going away empty handed. However I’d have to stay a third night in the hotel as Dipu was otherwise engaged but I reckon I’d found the best man for the job.

Rik and Dipu with our trusty steed

Rik and Dipu with our trusty steed

THE ROAD LESS TRAVELLED

As arranged, Dipu - all hair, teeth and 6 foot 3 of him - duly arrived at 6.30am next morning smiling mirthfully with a rugged, shiny new SUV. You get what you pay for. After a quick breakfast we were on our way, stopping off to pick up his friend Rik who’d be joining us. Once out of Tura, the road quality quickly deteriorated and with it the forest, burnt down for small farms, the denuded hills looking desperately sad. The people and villages were desperate too. With little opportunity for education in these outbacks, children wandered around when they should be attending school so it doesn’t take a genius to work out that there’ll be little environmental awareness to combat the practice of jhumming in the near future. 

Jhumming (slash-and-burn) farming is highly destructive to the natural environment

Jhumming (slash-and-burn) farming is highly destructive to the natural environment

DACOITS AND INSURGENTS 

We were now heading down towards the India/Bangladesh border past the last small town of Dalu, real Boy’s Own adventure stuff, and once again the jungle appeared more verdant, thick and lush. It was like eye candy to me. On one side the flat plains of Bangladesh and on the other our broken road meandering through hills of tiny picturesque villages full of forest, paddy, fruit trees, wooden bridges, gentle streams and enveloped by the most glorious tropical heat. You’d step out the jeep to hear the sound of birds and insects, the place full of butterflies and the silence that comes with no traffic and no people around. Quite beautiful. 

But it hasn’t always been this rural idyll.

The Garo Hills have been plagued with an often brutal insurgency for the last 30 years, terrorising the region and its people and warding off backwater travel. Common thugs masquerading as an independence movement - the Garo Libertion Army - they’ve now either surrendered or been killed which means it’s all a lot safer. Dipu would recount on numerous occasions harrowing stories of ambushes, cold-blooded killings and extortions.

 

An often brutal insurgency for the last 30 years, terrorising the region and its people

 

Meghalaya itself was made an independent state from Assam in 1972. To break the region up still further seems madness. Splitting the three main tribal areas: the Garo to the west, the Khasi in the central hills and the Jantai to the east would make no sense and looking at it’s present state under Indian control, I doubt it could survive if these places were separate entities.

FullSizeRender.jpg

It all felt very remote and this isolation coupled with being an international no-mans-land means there’s dacoits waiting to rob, steal, poach and deforest. Not a safe place to travel at night. We passed beautiful slabs of Sal forest, the favourite abode of the Asiatic Elephant, but there were worrying signs of illegal timber extraction despite forestry posts. An elephant was recently found dead in another part of the region, shot for flesh, her three month old calf by her side. 

  Dipu Marak (or Mandi Burung aka Big Foot)

 Dipu Marak (or Mandi Burung aka Big Foot)

Dipu was proving fine company and we chatted constantly throughout the road trip. Travelling alone is wonderful (and expensive!) though sometimes you miss the shared experience. In these instances it’s good to get along with the locals and, since he could speak excellent English and was of a similar age range, it felt like Dipu was a mate, not a guide. And this way you find out about their lives too, the more intimate aspects that are otherwise hidden away. He had lost his wife back in 2011 as she gave birth to their son. He’d lost a child beforehand and had adopted another boy too. It was testament to his character that he survived those tragedies and came out the other side such a lovely character. 

He told me some folklore of a seven foot hairy man - a Big Foot - that stalked the hills and forests, seen by some of the local villagers on occasion, the Mandi Burung. Bingo! That was to be his nickname! Even the locals started calling him it!

PERMISSION GRANTED

We trundled on towards the town of Baghmara beautifully situated on the Simsang River (Galaxy) which originates in Nokrek. We bought our supplies here - we’d need them for the three nights at the lodge in Balpakram - then headed out to the Forestry Department to get the permit to travel.

I love these places, like something out of a Graham Greene novel, all musty paperwork, dusty light and the whirring of fans. We entered the transistion zone towards the park early evening, passing ‘Elephant Crossing’ signs, dense forest with patches of jhummed hills and tiny Garo villages.

 The during and after of a slash-and-burn

It was dark and we were tired by the time we reached Balpakram around 8pm. After a fine dinner of freshly caught fish it was straight under the mosquito net and straight to sleep. The end of day one and an unexpectedly beautiful road trip.

Feeding the Five Thousand - some of the supplies for the lodge

Feeding the Five Thousand - some of the supplies for the lodge